Article by Mark Trotta
Designed to be as small and affordable as possible, microcars are generally one- or two-passenger cars with 500cc or smaller engines. Microcars are often called "bubble cars" due to their bubble shape. Many of these were electric-powered.
Beginning in the 1920s, European manufacturers began to offer a diverse array of small cars. Early microcars often shared engines and transmissions with motorcycles, sometimes using motorcycle wheels and brakes as well. These three- or four-wheeler roofless vehicles were known as cycle-cars until the 1940s.
Pre-War Crosley Cars (1939-1942)
With automobile sizing going from compact, to sub-compact, then microcar, American manufacturers tended to build no smaller than sub-compacts. The first major American sub-compact car was the Crosley two-door convertible, riding on an 80-inch wheelbase and weighing less than 1,000 pounds. Under the hood, along with the battery and four-gallon gas tank, sat a 580cc two-cylinder engine.
Read: Crosley Cars History
American sub-compact cars include all Crosley models and the Nash Metropolitan.
Post WW2 MicroCars
The majority of microcars evolved out of the economic conditions of post-WW2 that ravaged much of Europe and Japan. With shortages of gas and rubber, inexpensive cars were designed and built for the sole purpose of being cheap to produce and cheap to operate. Many of these "compact engineering" designers were formerly in the aircraft industry.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of microcar manufacturers have come and gone through the years. Microcars were not only small, they often were produced in small numbers. Some, but not many, European microcars were imported to the U.S. during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. The following is a review of some of the more popular ones.
BMW Isetta (1955-1962)
One of the largest-selling microcars of all-time, the BMW Isetta was a three-wheeled, one-door sedan, featuring a steering wheel that hinged outwards with the door for easier passenger access. The Isetta was originally an Italian design, and was built by several manufacturers, including ISO, Velam and BMW. The latter redesigned the engine around their own single-cylinder, 247cc motorcycle engine. As a basis for comparison, most 22" push lawn-mowers have a 200cc engine.
BMW produced over 160,000 Isettas between 1955-1962, making it the largest selling microcar.
Yes, the same company that made the Axxis planes that flew over European skies during WW2, produced the Messerschmitt microcar after the war. The KR-200 model was an aircraft-inspired, three-wheeled vehicle with a clear canopy top. The subframe supported the engine and the rear suspension. The engine cover was hinged to the monocoque structure. It was a one-passenger-only vehicle, and to get in and out most of the bodywork had to be lifted to one side.
The Messerschmitt KR200 had a unique way of backing up. The driver would shut off the engine, then restart it backwards by turning the key in the opposite direction. This is possible only with two-stroke engines, and only for a brief period.
Another German aeronautics company that produced microcars after the war was Heinkel Flugzeugwerke. From 1956 to 1958 the company built the Kabine, which featured a similar three-wheel, front-door design as the Isetta.
The Goggomobil Dart was an Australian-designed, German-built sports car produced from 1959 to 1961. With a curb weight of 840 pounds and overall length of 120 inches, fuel mileage was in the 40-45-mpg range, though some owners claimed as much as 60 mpg. A four-speed manual transmission helped make the most of the 20 horsepower, 393cc engine.
Powered by a 324cc Villiers engine, the first Zeta model was introduced in 1963, with production ending in 1965. It's untimely debut coincided with the Morris Mini, which was much more practical and not much more in price. Including some leftover 1965 models sold in 1966, fewer than 400 Lightburn Zetas were made.
World's Smallest Car
Listed in the 2010 Guinness World Records as the smallest production car ever made, the Peel 50 has a length of just 52.8 inches and a width of 39 inches. These mini-cars were originally manufactured from 1962 to 1965, with about 50 examples known to have been produced. Claimed fuel consumption was 83 miles-per-gallon.
Just how small is a microcar? The Peel 50 has a length of less than five feet. A BMW Isetta measures 7.5 feet long. A classic VW Beetle measures over 13 feet.
1970s Gas Shortages
It was the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973, which brought about gasoline shortages and high prices, that sparked renewed interest in mini-cars and electric-powered cars.
Read: Electric Car History
Later in the seventies, Japanese imports easily outsold microcar and sub-compact cars with affordable and more practical compact models.
Here in the 21st century, microcars are making a bit of a comeback, with advent of the Smart Car, Elio, Wildfire, and others. In Europe and Asia, many city streets are not much wider than a modern American car, and a micro-sized car makes sense.
Voitures Sans Permis
Depending on the country, microcars are categorized (and taxed) by either length, width, engine displacement, and if three- or four-wheeled. Since the 1920s, France has had a provision for "voitures sans permis" or cars not needing licenses. Pre-1980 sans permis cars could have engines with no more than 50cc displacement, and only single or two-passenger vehicles were allowed. Over the years, engine size limits have increased. The "voitures sans permis" class still stands today.
Japanese Kei Cars
After WW2, the Japanese government established the "kei jidosha", which is a class of small, inexpensive cars. Similar to the sans permis class of French cars, Japan's kei cars are taxed and insured at a lower rate than larger cars. Originally limited to only 150cc, engine size restriction gradually increased over the years, and presently stands at 660cc.
Read: Lane Motor Museum